DOGSBODY DOES DUBLIN
FOUR DISPATCHES FROM JAMES JOYCE’S CITY DURING THE CENTENNIAL OF BLOOMSDAY
In most places in the world, June 16 is just another day on the calendar, but here in Dublin, the day that James Joyce earmarked for Ulysses is celebrated with a fervor not seen here since the days of the druids when, if you really wanted to party, you needed a couple skeins of wine and a grove full of virgins.
When Dubliners celebrate they don’t mess around. June 16, Bloomsday, isn’t nearly enough time. The celebrations started the weekend before and will continue throughout the week and into next weekend. The 19th International James Joyce Symposium kicked off with a reading by Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney. Joyceans woke up early Sunday morning for an outdoor breakfast on O’Connell Street, strolled to the National Concert Hall for a plenary reading by John Banville and rounded out the evening with a civic reception for symposium delegates at city hall hosted by Dublin’s Lord Mayor.
Everyone wants to get in on the act. This week, the National Library of Ireland opens its display of the newly discovered Ulysses manuscripts. The Royal Hibernian Academy has a showing of artwork pertaining to Joyce. The General Post Office is issuing a James Joyce Commemorative Stamp. There are no less than three events involving films about Joyce or his work. Endless exhibitions. Countless concerts. Guided tours out the wazoo. And a million-and-one dramatic performances, adaptations and something they’re calling a “Street Theatre Extravaganza,” perhaps in an effort to stand out in a very crowded field. Frankly, I have no idea what some of these things are: the Parable of the Plums, the Sandycove Glasthule Street Festival, The Ghost Elijah, which is described as an outdoor video projection thingy and has something to do with using buildings as movie screens. Guinness, not to be outdone by the city of Dublin, is having its own breakfast. There’s even a Bloomsday Boat Regatta.
Why all the fuss? This isn’t your average Bloomsday: it’s the centenary. It’s a little staggering to think of all the trouble people are going to commemorate the 100th anniversary of events that never happened to people who never existed, but there’s no question about it: Joyce owns Dublin. As Toby Litt says, “He has his day; he stops his city.”
So far everything is impressively organized, although I wondered at the wisdom of having John Banville read a longish section of his new novel to a room full of jet-lagged academics who’d just stuffed their gullets with rashers, fried potatoes and blood sausage. The reading was lovely, but I was really impressed with the breakfast. The city shut down part of O’Connell Streetthe longest road in Irelandand expeditiously fed 10,000 people.
While waiting in the queue, I eavesdropped on a Dubliner explaining to his son what all the fuss is about. He offered a fairly concise summary of the book, but it was too much for the kid. He was messing with a balloon the whole time and didn’t show any interest in the story until the end.
“So she’s in bed the whole time?”
This kid was ten, tops.
Maybe romance was in the air. A gentleman banker chatted up my mother. It’s too soon to call it a romance of course, but let’s just say more than pleasantries were explained. She’s in the country less than two hours and men are throwing themselves, or at least their phone numbers, at her. The best thing about this development was talking about it pretty much non-stop afterwards, much to my mother’s mortification. Out of fairness, I feel compelled to mention that my sister, who has been Dublin two days longer than my mother, hasn’t gotten any digits. Mom 1, Sister 0.
As for James Joyce, not everyone is onboard for the lovefest. I would venture to guess most Dubliners aren’t James Joyce fans because most Dubliners aren’t readers of modern fiction. On more than one occasion I watched people shake their heads and mutter, “Wanker” whenever someone in period costume went by, and who can blame them?
Walking past a kiosk loaded with advertisements for Joyce-related activities, I heard a woman voice her displeasure at the multitude of Joyceana.
“Can we say commodification?”
Can we say cynic?
Still, the remark prodded my curiosity, so I backtracked to see what sparked her response: applications for a James Joyce Visa card. So even though you aren’t here in Dublin, you, too, can have epiphanic experiences at 12% APR.
One doesn’t come to Dublin for the weather, yet the past few days have been bright, sunny and gorgeous. On Monday the temperature was higher here than it was in Los Angeles, yet no one accused me of bringing the weather with me. Here in Dublin, the art of the conversation is such that no one bothers commenting upon such trivial matters, although France’s victory over England is still being hotly contested.
The closer we get to Bloomsday, the faster the pace of the populace, the more frenetic the pulse of the Hibernian metropolis. All over the city, Joyceans scurry about like ants, running from panel to panel, party to party, reacquainting themselves with old colleagues and conversing with new ones. Indeed, the James Joyce Symposium is a feast of memories. When I first arrived in Dublin 12 twelve years ago, I’d just written a thesis on Joyce’s influence on Jack Kerouac (no, seriously, check out Big Sur). I fancied myself a scholar. Now, I’m someone who only uses the word “fancy” when I’m making fun of something. But back then I was stridently in pursuit of a life in academia, and it took a harsh blow to my finances (i.e. a reality check) to disabuse me of the notion that I was somehow entitled to spending my days tracking down allusions in books written before I was born.
Yet, thanks to the influence of my mentor in Joyce studies, a charming woman from Poland named Jolanta Wawrzycka, there I was at the podium, faking my way through a presentation about the use of an ancient Irish alphabet in Finnegans Wake. When I think back on those days, I cringe. I mean, was there anyone in greater need of an ass kicking than I? (Not that ancient Irish alphabets are anything to be ashamed about.) Soon I would be on my own, away from home, school, friends, everything the world had prepared me for up to that point; I was on the verge of entering a new phase of living where there wouldn’t be me much room for Joyce, Irish literature, academia. And I didn’t have so much as an inkling of a clue. Ergo, beatdown.
It has been said that you don’t choose your passions; rather your passions have a way of choosing you. Whenever I abandoned Joyce for too long, he’d angle a magnified light beam at me through the lens of his prose and the old intensities would come surging back. I can think of no other reason why I felt it necessary to dust off my thesis and attend a conference in Orange County or hornswaggle the institution where I got my MA into paying for a trip to the symposium in Seville. And now, ten years later, here I am, and Joyce still has the power to stop me in my tracks.
This was never clearer to me than the other morning when I was wondering around the astounding new display of notebooks and manuscripts at the National Library of Ireland. Some of the notebooks have been digitally reproduced and the viewer can flip the pages by dragging one’s fingertips across the screen. Additional buttons allow the user to move a window of enlarged text around the screen like a digital magnifying glass. I found myself on my knees, inches from the screen, dumbly mouthing the words. This wasn’t scholarship; this was supplication.
That said, it would be a mistake to paint Joyceans as sycophants, as evidenced by the panel I attended the day before yesterday: Excremental Joyce. Here are the papers: “Letting Rip: The Primal Scene, the Veil and Excretia in Joyce and Freud”; “Shit and Meaning in Finnegans Wake”; “Excremental Joyce: Scatology in the Works.” If you had to sit in a hot stuffy classroom anywhere in the world, isn’t this the one you’d want to be sitting in? Not surprisingly, the panelists were all young scholars, bristling with irreverence and off-kilter erudition. They invoked Bataille, H.G. Wells, Freud’s Wolfman. The disagreed with one another and made sport of their disagreements.
I suspect at other symposia at other towns, such disputes lead to crises-with-a-capital-C that are bleated over hard lardy squares of yellow cheese and terrible wine and result in furious exchanges of email messages and grandstanding at department meetings; but here in the land of foamy ebon ale an argument is simply an excuse to stand drinks to a stranger and engage them in conversation. After all, Joyceans arguing about what a bit of nonsense in Ulysses or the Wake means is exactly like football fans discussing alternate outcomes of a match: so much pissing in the wind.
Like it or lump it, Joyce’s Promethean shadow looms large over modern literature. To study Joyce is to bow before his big brain. It is helpful not to think of him as human. He had human qualities to be sure, even though it is fashionable to think of him as all-too-human; but, essentially, because he believed that he was, he was something brilliant. Beyond a doubt, one of the reasons he has cultivated so many millions of readers is the fact that he limned his text with shit and piss, and was never afraid to make an enemy.
At least this is what I tried to tell myself while I was presenting the salty excerpts of my Dogsbody essay to a roomful of older scholars and other-generational Joyce aficionados. But I needn’t have worried. The very things I thought might cause offense were what made the piece enjoyable.
In a weird way, coming back to Dublin has been like stepping into an alternate universe populated by familiar characters, some real, some imagined. Over the course of the week, by criss-crossing the city dozens of times, we’re constantly made aware of the footsteps we’re following. At least that’s how I felt in the reading room at the National Library, sitting under the grand dome, light slanting through the upper windows, scratching out a book request slip just as James Joyce had done a hundred years ago. Dozens of scholars were bent over their papers and books, quietly turning the pages and typing on their laptops, trying to squeeze something out of the past. I allowed myself the smug satisfaction of the ape that knows he’s successfully mimicked a mannerism he’s dimly apprehended on the other side of the bars.
The organizers at the 19th International James Joyce Symposium suspended academic presentations and panels on Wednesday so the delegates could spend the day as they pleased. Many went to a screening of Bloom, starring Stephen Rea. A scholar from England had a barbecue at the beach. Another roamed the National Museum learning about Ireland’s relationship with its numerous invaders (he was there all day). My mother went to Sandycove where Joyceans were outfitted in straw hats, vests and other silly-ass accoutrements of early twentieth-century Dublin, and managed to get her picture taken with the historian and writer Tim Pat Coogan.
I’d had a late night the night before, er, that morning, and simply wanted to relax. (We drank round after round of shots called chocopops that were a mixture of crème de menthe and Bailey’s, and, when poured correctly, resembled little tiny pints of green Guinness and tasted exactly like GSA thin mints.) After going to the General Post Office on O’Connell Street, the site of rebel headquarters during the Easter Uprising, to mail a mountain of post cards with the all-important postmark (16.06.04), I went to Chapters book store, bought a novel that had nothing to do with Joyce or Ireland and set off for St Stephen’s Green in search of a patch of green grass, a cool breeze, and a bit of shade.
Along the way, a bunch of us nipped into a pub to fortify ourselves with oysters and stout. A note about the food seems in order here. Irish food is much maligned by Americans, and I can’t figure out why. It’s often lumped together with English cuisine, which is non-existent, and Scottish fare, which is nightmarish. But I think its reputation comes from Irish-American pub food, and all you need to cook that stuff is deep fryer for the fish and chips and a kettle to boil everything else. This is unfortunate, because the food here is nothing short of fantastic. Ireland is a nation of lush green fields, and no one knows this better than the cows, who, up to the point when they are brain-stunned and butchered, have it pretty good over here. Everything connected to a cow is of the highest quality: the milk is fresher, the butter better, and the beef exceptionally lean. Moreover, it’s all organic. No additives or preservatives. No steroids. No frankenfood. Because the dairy is so good, the bread is amazing, as is the milk in your coffee and don’t even get me started on the chocolate. My sister, who is a vegetarian, is in heaven, but it must be said the meat section of Tesco’s grocery store borders on the sublime.
The staple, of course, is fish and chips, and few places do it better than Leo Burdock’s takeaway, the original Dublin chipper located across the street from Christ Church since 1913. There are two other locations now, and one of them is right around the corner from the apartment my family has rented for the week. Burdock’s does fish and chips the old-fashioned way. They plonk a piece of haddock or cod down on a square of butcher’s paper, bury it in an avalanche of chips, lather the mess with salt and vinegar and send you out the door with a package the size of a brick. The appetizers served at the Symposium’s social events have been very good, but my favorite meal so far has been a grilled panini with rashers and brie served with a chips covered in cole slaw and grated cheese, presented in a bowl like an ice cream sundae. I have not heard “low” paired with “carb” since I left America, and it’s starting to feel like one of the more ridiculous renunciation schemes in our country’s history. By Dublin standards, a low-carb lifestyle is an oxymoron, a state of voluntary deprivation.
I’d probably be eating a lot more if it weren’t for my strict adherence to the Guinness meal-replacement plan. In Mason & Dixon, Pynchon calls stout a treacly substitute for naval tar, but for my money, Joyce gets it exactly right when he speaks of that first drop hitting the pit of the stomach with a click. Joyce was a drinker of white wine, which he compared favourably with urine, as opposed to red wine, which tasted to him like blood. Guinness, thankfully, tastes like neither, and you can learn more about it than you ever wanted to know at the brewery at St. James Gate, but there is nothing on earth like that first pint of Guinness of the day, and on that score Joyce was 100 percent correct. This is what diverted me from St. Stephen’s Green on Bloomsday. A pint here, a pint there. Everywhere a pint pint. Because if you keep moving you can have that first pint experience, that click in the pit, over and over again. In Ulysses, Bloom wonders if it’s possible to cross Dublin without passing a pub. It’s not. If you were to cross the city by ducking into every pub along the way a la the protagonist of Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” you’d never get there. The wet spots outnumber the dry, not to mention you’d get absolutely pole-axed. It would take you, as they say, a month of Sundays.
It was getting late and I had a party to prepare for. The three-bedroom apartment I rented is huge by Dublin standards, but the rooms are monkishly small, the kitchen cannot handle more than two people, and then only if they stay put, and the living room is barely big enough for all of us to sit in at the same time. But it’s a penthouse apartment and has a rooftop deck that is equal in size to the rest of the apartment. It features views of every major landmark from Christ Church to Kilmainham and the Wicklow Mountains beyond, and the second I laid eyes on it I knew I was going to have to have to throw a party. So during the opening reception for the Joyce in Art exhibit at the Royal Hibernian Academy, I spontaneously decided to have a Bloomsday gathering.
I turned around and wandered back through Temple Bar, across the Liffey via the Millennium Bridge (the newest of the twelve bridges that stitch central Dublin together) to Bachelor’s Walk, and after a quick trip to Tesco’s for some (drum roll, please) burgundy and Gorgonzola, I made it back in time to clean up before the first guests arrived. It was a modest turn-out, but with so much going on in the city, it was a marvel anyone came; but after we drank all the wine and took in the view, our group proved to be the perfect size for mobilizing to the pub older than America before closing time for the first of many last pints of a night that stretched into the small hours of the morning.
What better way to celebrate the end of a week of celebrations of Ulysses than with a wake? To wrap up Bloomsweek, the James Joyce Centre, sponsors of the XIX International James Joyce Symposium, threw a party and called it Paddy Dignam’s Wake. It took place at the Vaults, a subterranean nightclub next to Connolly Train Station that used to be a repository for contraband seized by the Customs House.
In Ulysses, Dignam dies a drinker’s death and leaves behind a wife and a brood of mewling children. The idea of a wake also anticipates Finnegans Wake, the book (only a mad person would call it a novel) that followed Ulysses, and “Finnegan’s Wake,” the famous song about a hodcarrier who drops dead and is resuscitated at his wake by the water of life, i.e. whiskey.
There wasn’t much whiskey on hand at the fete, just gallons of Fendent de Sole. In one corner of the catacombs, a priest presided over a casket where Paddy lay with his hands folded over his chest. A widow wailed. A son, also named Paddy, stood stoically. A preacher preached on the evils of intemperance. It was an impressive performance by the actors, for they refused to come out of character:
“Thanks for coming.”
“Sorry for your troubles,” I said, suddenly feeling somber and thirsty.
“Did you know him well?”
“I, um, heard a lot about him. Where’s the bar?”
“You’ll have to ask a member of the staff.”
The event was terribly oversold with half as many seats at the table as tickets sold. This is fine for a party, but disastrous for a banquet. There were people sitting on the stairs, eating off the coat-check table, a half dozen people crowded around a single cocktail table. The younger Joyceans got on fine. We ate in platoons and those who weren’t eating procured wine and deserts for those who were. Every few minutes I found myself sitting or standing next to someone new, gnawing on a bit of roasted lamb. It was a great way to renew acquaintances, finish conversations, compare impressions, and plan future adventures.
Older Joyceans hated it. They wanted their own place at the table, territory to defend, turf to squabble over. Voices were raised. Complaints registered. And when they left early to show their displeasure they left more of that infernal wine for us to suck down. By the end of the evening there were Joyceans collapsing into couches, Joyceans engaged in Greco-Roman grappling of the erogenous sort, Joyceans drinking straight from the bottle and making French declarations. It was a hell of a night.
Walking across Dublin for the last time, I thought about all the things I’d learned this week: jet lag is a great cover for a hangover but it loses its efficacy after a few days; Guinness is indeed better in Dublin than anywhere else in the world, it’s also useful as a stool softener; Dublin abounds with saunas, and they are known as Internet cafes; the whole country is mad about football; there’s a game my family likes to play on holiday trips: it’s called “Sarcasm” and we’re all experts at it; brown sauce is the perfect condiment; there’s an awful lot of shit in Ulysses.
There are many ways to travel and no one way is better than another, but I prefer to stay in one place and get to know it well as opposed to staying on the move. The chief drawback is that at the end your stay, it’s hard to go. You’re not finishing up a holiday so much as saying goodbye, and before the train is two minutes out of the city the people you met and places you went to are swiftly relegated to a place in your memories. That makes me sad. Either you’re the type of person who seeks out new experiences or you aren’t, makes new friends or doesn’t; but the wonderful thing about travel is the endless opportunities for reflecting on your relationships with people, places, even books, and imagining all the ways they might change when you get home. It’s like what Allen Ginsberg said, “It’s not the trip, it’s how you make use of it.” Granted, he was talking about LSD, but a trip is a trip is a trip. I think of Edward Gorey’s Mr. Earbrass, the protagonist of The Unstrung Harp, one of the most entertaining and instructive works of fiction about being a writer, standing on the deck of a ship, furtively glancing out to sea: “Even though he is not a person to whom things happen, perhaps they will on the other side.”
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